Philadelphia University Students Team Up to Help Clients with Disabilities

Occupational therapy student Caitlin O’Mara (left) designed and industrial design student Mercan Tara Sisman designed a support bar to help their client Krystal, 19, support her weight while standing.

Each year since 1999, Philadelphia University students in the occupational therapy and industrial design programs work throughout the year to create innovative assistive devices for clients with disabilities, making it easier for hundreds of individuals to complete physical activities that would otherwise prove difficult.

In what is believed to be the only such collaborative project in the country, this year, 27 student teams   displayed their projects April 20 at Philadelphia University. The projects ranged from a device that helped a seven-year-old boy with a global development disorder hold a pencil to a specialized gardening shovel for a 57-year-old woman living with multiple sclerosis.

“We wanted our client to be able to do the things he is passionate about,” said Alyson Stern, an occupational therapy student who worked with industrial design student Mike Rodriguez to design a grip-strengthening device for their client Nick. Nick is 33, and due to his autism and cerebral palsy, he experiences extreme sensitivity to sensory stimuli and suffers fatigue easily. Despite his physical setbacks, Nick plans to volunteer at a horse farm in the summer, and he wanted a device that would improve his grip on tools necessary for weeding, shoveling and other farming tasks.

Stern and Rodriguez designed a device with a forearm rest and Velcro strap to hold tools in place. A quick-connect system allows Nick to easily mount a variety of tools to the device and use them as needed.

Occupational therapy student Maria Jarillo and industrial design student Brian Celenza's device helps Mariano, 78, a stroke victim with partial paralysis in his left side, put on a jacket using one arm.

The students worked with a wide range of clients for their projects, ranging from a two-year old with cystic fibrosis to a 78-year old recovering from a stroke. Each client received individual attention from their student team:  occupational therapy students worked with clients to determine what their daily needs are and industrial design students created  prototypes to  meet those needs.

“We focused on our client’s desire to lead an independent and active lifestyle,” said Caitlin O’Mara, an occupational therapy student who worked with industrial design student Mercan Tara Sisman. The pair created a support bar to attach to their client Krystal’s wheelchair. Krystal, 19, lives with a syndrome that causes low muscle tone. In her spare time, Krystal volunteers as a server for Meals on Wheels and likes to stand to greet the diners.  O’Mara and Sisman designed a bar that attaches to the front of Krystal’s wheelchair and supports her weight when she stands. It also comes apart easily and folds behind the chair when it is not needed.

More than 25 device prototypes for other clients included adaptive eating utensils, kitchen knives with safer grips, a one-finger laptop opener, an ergonomic arm rest, a hands-free retractable umbrella, a hanger that lets the user put on a jacket with one arm and a portable storage device for medical equipment.

“This is a wonderful opportunity to link creativity with function to create devices that meet people’s needs,” said Wendy Krupnick, Ph.D., associate professor and director of the occupational therapy program.  “Students gain exceptional experiences, and clients benefit from the process.”

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